One of the few practical pieces of advice I’ve ever received is this: If you want to know if you’re being hustled in chess, ask your opponent to arrange the board. The tell will be in the efficiency of his movements, a kind of unconscious elegance. Virtuosity will out — and always in small, ordinary gestures.
Take the work of Dorthe Nors, the darkly comic Danish writer, who is at her wiliest when she’s most direct. “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,” her third book to be translated in English, was a finalist for the International Man Booker Prize in 2017. It is Nors at her most unassuming and ambitious.
Sonja is a single, 40-something translator of gory crime novels (Nors’s own side gig for years). She is reeling from a breakup. Or is it vertigo? Her body is in full revolt, from her aching jaw to her fallen arches. A masseuse examines her feet with wonder: “They don’t want to grab the earth.”
Sonja lives alone in Copenhagen, and solitude is making her strange. She is forgetting how to talk to people and has taken to drafting odd letters to her family: “I hope you and dad are doing well,” she writes to her mother. “You guys should stick around for years, of course.”
“I need something that pokes up from the horizontal,” she decides. “Some buoyancy, some catastrophe.” No such luck. Driving lessons must do. And Sonja — who has the translator’s heightened sensitivity to language — endures hours of what sounds like gnomic life advice from her instructor: “If you’d just glance back into your blind spot to the right you’ll be fine,” her teacher barks. “We’re ready for the launch ramp.”
We’re locked in Sonja’s consciousness, but the novel never becomes claustrophobic. Opening it feels like opening a window — there’s a bracing freshness and chill to the writing, and the unforced ease of a song. (Nors once harbored ambitions to become a singer-songwriter in the vein of Rickie Lee Jones. She was dissuaded, she said, because she never looked very good in hats.)
However plain the prose, Nors can’t help but handle words in interesting ways and put them to original uses. An exemplary sentence: “Inside her the sky empties itself in slow, unresolving fashion, and there isn’t anything worth naming in the fridge.” This has always been a favorite move of hers— to yoke together unrelated clauses, to bring together despair and banality (the novelist Fiona Maazel has called Nors the master of the conjunction). This tic has graduated into technique. In the new novel, these awkward juxtapositions echo her lifelong theme, of our own essential awkwardness, manacled as we are to our bodies, which confuse pangs of vague hunger for existential dread, and can bring us shame or status we scarcely understand and have done nothing to deserve.
Nors has an intense fascination with aging, and with women who have resisted domestication, specifically “middle-aged, childless women on the brink of disappearing,” she has written in an essay. “If a woman has kids, she will always be a mother, but a woman who has chosen not to procreate and who now no longer is young and sexy is perceived by many as a pointless being.” Nors’s fiction begins at the moment of unmooring — in all its pain and possibility, as these women imagine themselves into being. It’s the foundation, too, of a harsh wit that recalls early Lorrie Moore.
If her subject is unwavering, her style remains restless, less out of a desire to be “experimental” than out of playfulness and a genuine yearning, one feels, for contact and connection. She wants to ensnare the reader. “Karate Chop,” a collection of her short stories, was written in the broad declarative language of newspaper headlines.
“I write minimalism that is under attack from within,” she has said. “There’s always something bursting out of this very tight structure. It’s like an elephant in a very cool Danish chair.”
Beneath the cool minimalism roils maximalist outrage — the horror of being captive to not only your body but to society, . Sonja’s Copenhagen is a world of “glistening shoals of bikes,” proud xenophobia, of stifled sadness and stifling social conformity.
“It’s hard to find clothes to fit the body you have,” Sonja thinks at one point, “and it’s hard to find words to fit the people you love.” But as she sets off behind the wheel, with her bad feet, her vertigo and unquenchable need, how vital, how heroic, it seems to try. Just watch that blind spot.
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
By Dorthe Nors
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra
188 pages. Graywolf Press. $16.